US Embrace of Great Power Competition Also Means Contending With Spheres of Influence

February 13, 2020
Paul Saunders

This op-ed is part of a new debate from Russia Matters. The response can be read here: "Contending With—Not Accepting—Spheres of Influence" by Steven Pifer.

Despite considerable controversy over U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, his administration’s statement that great power competition has supplanted international terrorism as the principal threat to U.S. national security has won widespread and bipartisan support both in Congress and among Washington’s foreign policy elite, in part due to anxiety that China and Russia are working to establish “spheres of influence” in their respective regions. Seventy-five years after the Yalta Conference between U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin, U.S. elites remain deeply troubled by Yalta’s perceived role in Stalin’s subsequent domination of Central Europe and the oppression of the region’s Soviet bloc regimes. Strikingly, however, Washington’s embrace of great power competition has not yet stimulated a general re-evaluation of past concepts and principles of America’s foreign policy, including those surrounding spheres of influence, which are an inherent feature of great power competition. Failing to discuss and develop strategies and policies that accept and manage spheres of influence could prove quite costly—indeed, it already has.

After the U.S.S.R.’s sphere of influence collapsed in 1989, and the country itself fell apart in 1991, determination to avoid “a new Yalta” became a powerful force in U.S. and Western foreign policy.

Officials in the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations often denounced “spheres of influence” as an outdated notion and—more importantly—opposed Russia (first) and China (later) when each nation sought to expand its regional sway, though these policies were decidedly mixed in their results. In 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice avowed that “we will resist any Russian attempt to consign sovereign nations and free peoples to some archaic ‘sphere of influence.’” Less than a year later, Rice’s successor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declared that “we want to make clear that, as we reset our relationship [with Russia], we are very clearly not saying that Russia can have a 21st century sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.” During this period, Washington sought to expand the NATO alliance, largely to ensure that the new and prospective members would never again fall within a Russian “sphere of influence,” and provided various forms of diplomatic, economic and military assistance to these and other states in the region to strengthen their ability to resist Russian influence.

U.S. rejection of spheres of influence after the Cold War was both logical and appealing. Following the Soviet collapse, and at a time when China was weak and internally oriented, America had no rival capable of establishing a sphere of influence and Washington officials, politicians and pundits understandably liked it that way. Nevertheless, the gradual but inevitable emergence of other great powers in addition to the United States could not but undermine this immensely attractive state of affairs. This is the reality that America faces today.

“Great power competition” self-evidently requires two things: great powers, on the one hand, and competition, on the other. Having great powers in turn necessitates states that are able to act as ongoing rivals to the United States, even if they are able to do so only at specific times and in specific places and are thus not peers. Similarly, having competition demands that these states have the will to contest American preferences, even if they do not have this will at all times or in all places. This competition is not strictly military—it has economic, political, diplomatic and informational dimensions, too.

Thus, the definition of great power competition presents an inescapable intellectual problem for those who reject the existence of spheres of influence. If we accept that we live in a world of competition between great powers whose capabilities and will are unevenly distributed, and if we accept that U.S. capabilities and will are unevenly distributed, there will very likely be countries or even regions in which other powers have greater capabilities and/or will than the United States does at times and possibly even on a continuing basis. We don’t have to call these areas “spheres of influence”—and perhaps we shouldn’t, since many Western elites find the term’s historical associations distasteful—but we have to call them something. “Gray zones” might be one option, although the U.S. military has already defined this phrase differently. Much more important than agreeing on a name, however, is acknowledging that these areas exist and developing effective competitive strategies founded on an understanding that the United States cannot unilaterally determine the future course of events there—and that attempts to do so could lead to costly conflicts that are often most destructive for those whom we are seeking to protect.

Some Trump administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and former National Security Advisor John Bolton, have starkly asserted a U.S. sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere, language that previous administrations have avoided in deference to the sensitivities of America’s hemispheric neighbors. Likewise, some politicians have seemed to implicitly acknowledge a Russian sphere of influence, though likely not intentionally. Still, Washington’s national security bureaucracy and especially its national security elites are far from accepting a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as an unavoidable structural element of today’s international system. In fact, fear that Trump would agree to a Russian sphere of influence in Ukraine or elsewhere has been a tangible force in the U.S. Congress, both in its 2017-2018 Russia investigations and in sanctions legislation intended to tie Trump’s hands in negotiating with Moscow.

Washington’s past refusal to accept the reality that Moscow had the will and, as it turned out, the ability, to contest American preferences through force in some places contributed to wars and occupations that inflicted a terrible price upon Georgia and Ukraine. These two nations lost important portions of their territory to Russia in part because U.S. leaders, officials, policy elites and journalists promoted, supported or tolerated policies that ignored both Russia’s toolkit and its resolve along its borders. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to send Russian troops into these two states, and therefore is principally responsible for the outcomes, should not obscure America’s role in what happened, much as Josef Stalin’s decision to crush Hungary’s 1956 rebellion against Soviet power cannot excuse Radio Free Europe’s encouragement of Hungary’s doomed resistance, documented by the National Security Archive.

U.S. elites have adapted rather easily to great power competition’s surface-level requirements. The broad acceptance of great power competition as the main driver of U.S. foreign and security policy has fueled considerable efforts to assess and counter China’s and Russia’s hard-power and soft-power strategies, as well as their so-called “gray zone” strategies for military operations short of war. The fact that many have been eager to pursue more competitive, and in some cases even more confrontational, policies toward Beijing and Moscow for some time has eased the transition away from America’s global counterterrorism project. Yet the officials, politicians and media personalities who dominate national discussions of U.S. foreign policy are visibly struggling to accept great power competition’s deeper implications, including not only spheres of influence, but also the limits of American power and the critical importance of placing competitive strategies toward individual rivals within a broader strategy to manage great power dynamics over time.

In the former case, it is striking that even as the long U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq persuaded the American public of the limits of U.S. power, the country’s elites concluded not that Washington’s power was constrained, but that American voters were limited; why else would they fail to understand and accept the need to intervene in Syria, for example? On the latter point, a broader strategy for managing great power dynamics includes not only thinking about how the United States can influence China-Russia cooperation, but also preparing for more fluid relations with another great power—Europe—and for some European policies toward Beijing and Moscow that U.S. officials will oppose. Significant regional powers, such as Australia, Brazil, India, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, among others, will also require more attention.

Adapting to the reemergence of spheres of influence may be somewhat easier if policymakers focus more thoughtfully on the term itself. “Influence” is not domination, much less control. The United States is well-equipped to exert its own influence in strategically important countries and regions. Indeed, from this perspective, it may be more effective to focus on enhancing the scope, reach and depth of Washington’s influence rather than becoming obsessed with China’s and Russia’s growing influence and potential means to thwart or undermine their new weight. As a practical matter, China’s expanding wealth and power will convert into greater influence whether we like it or not; for its part, Russia has not yet finished clawing its way out of a historically aberrant period of weakness.

None of this is to suggest that U.S. officials should publicly endorse Chinese, Russian or other “spheres of influence”; that is not merely unnecessary but counterproductive, including in U.S. relations with the states in contested zones, where leaders might conclude that Washington has given up on them and thus seek accommodation with America’s rivals. What is essential, however, is for U.S. policy elites to stop trying to deny reality in America’s internal policy debates, both inside and outside government. Moreover, officials can acknowledge—without giving anything away—that China, Russia and other states have national interests and that while we may not agree with how those states define their interests, the United States notes those definitions and includes them among other considerations in formulating U.S. policy. The global political system is emerging from an unusual period of American quasi-unipolarity and entering a period in which the United States will have to work much harder to have its way and will not be able to expend such effort everywhere. Understanding this, and undertaking the tough job of setting priorities, is the best way to maximize America’s future power.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest.

Image in the public domain.